Photo by Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press
Photo by Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

Opinion: Schools that reopen before meeting state health benchmarks are putting educators, students, and their families at-risk.

Back in March, when we only had a couple of dozen cases of COVID-19 in the state of Arizona, the closure of schools by Governor Doug Ducey felt burdensome but necessary. We were trying to flatten the curve. 

As educators went into crisis teaching, parents began expressing an increased appreciation for the difficult job teachers have in educating our children. As a society, we also became more aware of how much we rely on schools to support our communities including providing meals, mental and emotional supports, one on one tutoring, coaching, social interaction, a sense of community with friends and neighbors, as well as a long list of additional supports and activities.

Over the summer, school administrators and staff began planning for the fall. They made plans. And more plans. And more plans. Each time adapting to the ever-changing situation in Arizona and direction from the Governor’s office.

On August 7, Governor Ducey released benchmarks in conjunction with the Departments of Health and Education to serve as guidelines to schools on when and how they should reopen. It appeared the State was done issuing mandates, at least in regards to schools, and left the decision to local control.

On August 18th, in the midst of a teacher “sick-out,” Superintendent of J.O. Combs Unified School District, Greg Wyman told AZFamily that statewide requirements for reopening schools would have solved a lot of the issues districts have faced when deciding when to open the classrooms to in-person learning.

“The bigger issue that I keep bringing up is the fact that we do not have a coherent or comprehensive plan at the state and federal level to open up schools. We have mandates for restaurants, we have mandates for bars, we have mandates for churches. We have mandates for every organization about when they can open,” said Wymann. “That’s what’s causing this confusion. And that’s what’s placing the…answer on the backs of governing boards. And they’re trying to manage between competing entities that have different opinions.”

So now, my daughter’s district is creating their own criteria on when they should reopen. And they are doing so with the blessing of Governor Ducey.

According to the August 13th press conference, Arizonans are asking themselves this question: why did the Governor create benchmarks at all if he had no intention of enforcing them, leaving districts and governing boards to shoulder this responsibility?

There are a lot of questions about how our children are going to stay safe in schools: from enforcing mask-wearing, to cutting class sizes, to ensuring thorough cleaning, requiring adequate ventilation and working HVAC systems.

And on several of these issues, there is little reassurance that those educators we revered back in the spring will be protected as we head into the fall. Governor Ducey’s August 18th photo with masked children sitting side-by-side on the floor is a clear example of how social distancing is likely not to occur upon returning to school. 

Districts and governing boards, I ask that you pledge now to refrain from opening schools for in-person instruction until state-issued benchmarks are met. If we want parents to have greater assurances of where they are sending their children when schools reopen, if we want to show school staff that we value them as educators, resources and people, if we want to protect our communities from a fast resurgence of this virus, then districts and governing boards need to take on the mantle of leadership that Arizona needs so badly. Pledge to not resume in-person instruction until benchmarks are met.